Flushing’s Chinatown lacks the self-consciousness of Manhattan’s Chinatown; here there are not many shops selling Oriental fans and other trinkets to tourists, nor street vendors selling lucky bamboo in all fantastical forms. Instead, Main Street is packed with Chinese grocers and pharmacists, shops selling all kinds of house plants, and—of course—restaurants, many restaurants.
Flushing’s Chinatown also has a somewhat different culinary repertoire than Manhattan’s Chinatown. My impression is that the great majority of Chinese restaurants in Manhattan’s Chinatown serve Cantonese-style food. This may partly be due to the influx of immigrants from Hong Kong and elsewhere in South China that largely populated Manhattan’s Chinatown, and it may also partly be due to the popularity of Cantonese-style food with Americans. But Flushing’s Chinatown, which was once known as “Little Taipei”, has a greater mix of culinary styles.
Faced with all of these culinary styles, I started my tour of Flushing’s Chinese food with what may be the simplest and arguably the oldest cuisine in China—Lu cuisine, or Shandong cuisine. This is the cuisine of the part of Northern China where Confucius lived. There is, in fact, a subset of Lu cuisine known as Kongfu cuisine, or Confucian cuisine, developed by Confucius’s descendants, many of whom, like Confucius before them, served in courts, apparently often as chefs. Perhaps not surprisingly given Confucius’s teachings, Kongfu cooking emphasizes “thoughtful preparation” (as Yan-Kit So put it) and presentation.
More generally, Shandong cuisine seems to be defined by a preference for certain cooking techniques and a greater frequency of certain ingredients—especially noodles, rice historically not having been easy to come by in north China.
One of the techniques favored in Shandong cooking is braising, and my objective tonight was braised beef tendon. To find it, I went to a relatively unsung restaurant on Main Street called “Li’s Garden”.
The interior of Li’s Garden is festooned with red Chinese Pan Chang knots and other folk decorations. There are two large banquet tables topped with Lazy Suzans, and possibly a dozen smaller tables. The atmosphere was festive when I went. A large party at one of the banquet tables laughed loudly and probably drunkenly—there was a pitcher of beer at almost every table in the room, except a table at the back, where they were drinking what looked like hard liquor.
No one at Li’s Garden speaks English. The hostess knows a few phrases, which became helpful when I needed to take my leftovers home—but my waitress knew only a sprinkling of nouns. Luckily, the menu has descriptions of the food in English, so you can simply point at what you want. Nevertheless, if you don’t speak Chinese, there can be some confusion. When I placed my order, I asked in my broken baby Chinese if I was ordering too much for one person (I wanted to sample two dishes). My waitress gave a reassuring nod of comprehension and said, “OK, OK!” indicating with her hands not to worry. But when the food was placed in front of me, I wondered what she had thought I was asking.
Braised beef tendon in brown sauce is a little like a stir fry, but the braising imbues all the mixed ingredients with a slightly slippery, oily quality. The tendon itself is soft but slightly chewy, flavorful but not as flavorful as fat. The dish also features wood ear fungus, bamboo shoots, peppers, onions, and peas. I am not sure what the brown sauce is. The flavor suggests it may be soy based, but it isn’t nearly as strong as soy sauce. There is no noticeable spice in the dish. The intent seems to be to showcase the natural flavors of the ingredients. It is tasty, but subtle, and it may strike some people as bland.
I also ordered “a little bit of everything” noodles. This was another very mild dish, and here the desire to showcase the ingredients’ natural flavors was clearer. The broth was slightly sweet and sour, and the noodles and wood ear fungus took this flavor. But the bits of egg floating in the soup had a surprising sulfurous flavor, tasting more strongly of egg than a hard-boiled egg.
There are probably close to two hundred items on the menu at Li’s Garden, and I only chose these items because I wanted to try dishes representative of Shandong cuisine. But for more adventurous diners, Li’s Garden has Frog in chili oil, Spicy duck in beer, Braised sea cucumber with scallion, Fish head with pancake, Pig ear with scallion, Jelly fish with mature vinegar, and so on. The desserts look very tempting—honey glazed sweet potato, honey glazed Japanese yam, honey glazed taro, sweet corn pancake, and deep fried butter buns.
42-87 Main Street
11am – 2am, 7 days a week